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The exhibition Feminist and . . . has a provocatively short title, whose first word has been defined many ways since it was adopted from France in the late nineteenth century. How might six women artists of different generations, national origins, and ethnicities interpret the term now? The curator was Hilary Robinson, who was a professor of art theory and criticism at Carnegie Mellon University until January of this year, when she became Dean of Art and Design at Middlesex University. She has frequently written about gender issues in the visual arts. There is no catalogue.
What is “feminism” in the visual arts now? Is feminist art made only by women? How much does an artist’s gender matter in this (young) new century? The works reviewed here do not look like anyone else’s in the show, and several might be considered gender neutral since they include statements by male and female writers. Carrie Mae Weems and Betsy Damon are well known for complex works that speak to many universal concerns—the environment and clean water in Damon’s case; family and racial issues in the work of Weems. Ayanah Moor, Parastou Forouhar, and Loraine Leeson are less familiar names, but all have contributed to major exhibitions that comment on women’s place in society. Julia Cahill, a recent BFA graduate from Carnegie Mellon, was the youngest participant. Her installation, which mocks our society’s obsession with breasts, was the most clearly feminist but in a cheeky, light-hearted way.
Founded in 1977, the Mattress Factory in Pittsburgh was once just that, but it is now a contemporary art museum that houses permanent installations and each year sponsors several group shows of themed temporary installations in the original building and in some smaller houses nearby. The museum’s motto is “art you can get into.” Step into Yayoi Kusama’s room completely lined with mirrors reflecting naked mannequins sporting her trademark spots that are also painted on the cream-colored floor and see them and yourself multiplied to infinity. James Turrell’s Danaë, on the other hand, a rectangle of blue light on the far wall of a dark room, invites a contemplative response. Temporary installations in past exhibitions have used an astonishing range of materials (even waste and rubbish) and transformed the generously proportioned rectangular spaces in endlessly imaginative ways, including memorable ones by Ann Hamilton and Christian Boltanski that were part of the Carnegie International in 1991.
The six women in Feminist and . . . used rocks, sandbags, flowing water, painted newspaper, a very large replica of the Venus de Milo, ping-pong balls, steel tables on tall legs, a crimson curtain, video projections, and black and white paint to make their points. The most ambitious installation was Damon’s Water Rules Life Pittsburgh: Seeking Lost Rivers, Living Waters of Larimer. Visitors could walk on irregularly shaped stepping stones in a shallow stream leading to the dry land at the far end where benches let visitors watch videos of flowing water or interviews with local residents about Pittsburgh’s known and hidden underground rivers. Sandbags behind rocks along the sides prevented the water from seeping out of the windowless basement room, a matter of some anxiety to the management. The constant sound of running water—surely one of the nicest in the natural world—reminded us that water is essential to our very being and is especially abundant in Pittsburgh. Our bodies are mainly water (70 percent, Damon tells us in her statement), a fact that seems incredible when our hands grasp a glass of water.
Upstairs, Leeson projected videos of people concerned with social issues such as Alzheimer’s, alternated with factual statements of the growing numbers of people suffering from memory loss in all its forms as people live longer than before. Another group spoke about conservation of energy. The subjects were all appealing and articulate, but it was ultimately frustrating to follow as viewers had to try to make sense of multiple stories into which they had stepped like late arrivals at a cocktail party. A documentary movie would have communicated the message more effectively: the means used here added little to the message unless it aimed to make us feel as distracted by life as sufferers of dementia must be.
The message was less transparent in three other installations. Weems (Lincoln, Lonnie and Me—A Story in 5 Parts) asked visitors to step into a dark curtained room with a stage created by ruby red curtains pulled back to form an opening in which ghostly white shapes appeared and vanished against a black background. These apparitions made repeated movements while words from spirituals, the Gettysburg Address, and other sources could be heard over music. One affecting set of images, staged like an old newsreel, was of men in top hats in a moving open car: one raised hand went from a welcoming wave to a dismissal as it passed us by over and over again. There was a black male boxer hunched over, fleeting glimpses of what seemed to be naked women, and the words “Tap me down” repeated many times. The man in the car was presumably Lincoln; the timid boxer was “scared,” but later found strength. Weems herself was among the women, but her overall message was not clear beyond conjuring up vaguely familiar memories of the history of racism in this country. The piece required spending considerable time—to see the video’s full eighteen minutes from start to finish, and then more to make sense of the messages of the blended words, music, and images, none of which were easy to follow. Most visitors observed by this reviewer did not stay long.
Forouhar covered everything except the windows in her Written Room from top to bottom in white paint, and then wrote beautiful black calligraphic messages in Farsi that meandered in sinuous bands from floor to wall, around corners and up to the ceiling. Visually it was exhilarating to come across, but what was the message? Only those fluent in Farsi would know that it is not criticism of the current government, or Persian poetry, or passionate statements about the status of women in Arabic culture, but, rather, letters that mean nothing. Ping-pong balls decorated with more Farsi dots and lines were scattered over the floor. The artist’s biographical statement tells us that her parents were murdered for their political beliefs and that she is no fan of the current rulers of Iran (she lives in Germany). Her work usually incorporates autobiographical references to her past, for example images of butterflies—her mother’s name means butterfly—made of shapes that turn out to be women. Is the only message here a spectacular celebration of the art of calligraphy in a language that has far more beautiful letter forms than those of Latin-based languages?
Moor called her installation by and about. The walls were covered with rows of newspaper pages whose texts were obliterated by various hues of reddish-brown paint and on which large black capital letters spelled out bits of texts by or about Nikki Giovanni, Billie Holiday, Octavia Butler, and others. Only a wall label identified the authors of these brief repeated texts that conveyed barely a hint of the power of their writing. It was easier to look at the newspapers on tall tables—all relatively recent New York Times issues—to see what sort of messages had not yet been completely covered up yet. These included exhibition reviews and Sotheby’s real estate ads, among other daily trivia of the rich, white, upper classes. Was this all a metaphor about the lack of communication between black and white America, or rich and poor, or even the willful blindness about those on both sides? With that depressing thought, the cheerful rap by Cahill, Breasts in the Press, based on a Black Eyed Peas song, in the next room was a reviving tonic of humor. Her small room was filled by an oversize Venus de Milo with very large breasts. On them were projected two videos of Cahill performing her rap about breasts, real and boosted by artificial means, censored and uncensored in the media, as well as showing her painting her own and then making prints on large sheets of paper in the saucy rhythm of her rap. Body prints recall Yves Klein, but in this instance the woman is in control. When visitors exited the room, they found two inky textured circles on the wall where the artist has pressed her breasts, her very personal signature!
With no common knowledge of stories from the Bible and mythology or even our own history to provide spectators with clues to the artists’ viewpoints, and no limits on the imagery or the materials in which artists work, communication between artists and their public is a far more complicated matter now than in the past. How much information should the artist provide to help us to understand the work? How much of our time can they demand of visitors who are standing, not sitting as we usually are when viewing an exhibition? This reviewer believes that a title and an artist’s statement are always helpful, as well as seats, which were provided for Weems’s piece. The Mattress Factory encourages their artists to supply this information, and therefore images from each installation and links to the artists’ websites are made available on the museum’s website, but viewers familiar with these artists’ previous works will probably get more out of them than those seeing their works here for the first time.
Ann Sutherland Harris
Professor Emerita, Department of the History of Art and Architecture, University of Pittsburgh
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